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The End of Our Progress 

An ex-mayor chooses between his hometown and poorest Africa. We lose.

Wednesday, Aug 22 2007
Art Agnos, the old political lion many lefties had pegged as the best possible hope for unseating the incumbent mayor, arrived here last month in a city he hardly recognized following a stay in Sierra Leone.

"Twenty-five percent of children in that country die before age 5. Seventy percent of the people are unemployed," recalled Agnos, who had visited the country as part of an election-monitoring delegation.

Once arriving in San Francisco, "I saw more pet clinics for dogs and cats than I did health clinics in that country for human beings. We have emergency pet clinics. Jesus Christ! Then I drove by 14th Street and Howard, and there's a billboard for the Wag Hotel for dogs and cats. Rooms are $80 per night with é la carte extras that include an evening stroll for $15, belly rubs for $20."

So it was that San Francisco lost one of its last remaining progressive hopes to confront incumbent Gavin Newsom in November's mayoral election, because Agnos had determined San Francisco had become so twee a place that it wasn't worth his time and energy.

Before readers sniff and accuse the ex-mayor of taking on airs, let me inform you that he's on to something: Agnos' homecoming happened to coincide with the end of history in San Francisco, a moment when human progress, or even aspiration to real progress, stopped happening here.

Quite reasonably, Agnos, mayor of San Francisco from 1988 to 1992, now wanted no part of the political office.

"I don't want to spend my remaining years fighting for free Wi-Fi for San Francisco, or whether or not to convert golf courses into playgrounds," Agnos said, citing a couple of our most pressing local political concerns. "Other people ought to spend time on it, because that's what's important to them. But it's not where I want to spend my time."

As it becomes more expensive, and ever less a source of good jobs, San Francisco steadily sheds its poor, its young, its blacks, and its Latinos. The city's economy is becoming more tourism-based, its politics more backward-looking, its citizens' social concerns ever more abstract.

Francis Fukuyama predicted in 1988 that mankind's struggle would all peter out, because Western-style capitalism and democracy had become the globally preferred mode of life. Islamic fundamentalism and Chinese capitalistic authoritarianism killed that idea.

But the notion of an end to a historic movement is apt for San Francisco, where the triumph of a blithe bourgeoisie has ushered in an era of preoccupation with trifles.

So Agnos is no snob for turning his attentions elsewhere. And he can't be blamed for leaving Gavin Newsom, a made-for-his-era inattentive glamour-puss, the perfect shoo-in for San Francisco mayor.

While much public pre-election hand-wringing focused on the question of whether colorful Supervisor Chris Daly might enter the mayoral race at the last minute, or whether 2003 progressive hopeful Matt Gonzalez might jump in, strategic minds among the city's left courted Agnos as the best possible candidate to unseat Newsom.

The idea, as expounded by Gonzalez and other lefty insiders, was that Agnos, a policy-minded former mayor and assemblyman, had sufficient political gravitas to run as an anti-Newsom candidate, and has been widely and accurately depicted as a distracted beau monde denizen.

More than a month ago, before Agnos left for Sierra Leone, he seemed to be very seriously considering a run at the city's top job. He spoke with the panic-tinged pragmatism of someone contemplating a hard-fought election campaign.

Spending July 9 through 16 watching the world's poorest struggle to rise up from poverty, corruption, death, and tyranny gave him new perspective. Back home, San Francisco's most ardent activists were locked in a bitter struggle over the best kinds of Internet hookups the city should use.

The unbearable tweeness of being San Franciscan has always existed; now it's strangely acute. The July 27 issue of The Economist aptly described what's going on: We're becoming an American version of Monte Carlo or Venice. These are cities preserved as they were aeons ago for the benefit of tourists, where the only locals are rich holdouts with a keen taste for stasis.

As San Francisco has quietly recovered from the 2000 dot-com bust, the city has subtly transformed. Office and apartment buildings are full again, like they were a decade ago. But cafes, sidewalks, and other community spaces that young people frequent aren't.

Thanks to increasing efficiency in the financial services industry, a tech-economy recovery that hasn't produced significant net growth in jobs during the past decade, and a promised biotech boom that's yet to happen, the inward rush of young people that accompanied the mid-1990s tech boom hasn't repeated. The 2000 exodus of young people was permanent; the percentage of San Franciscans in their 20s has dropped by more than a third since the dot-com boom. The city has fewer young people, poor people, black people, Latino people, and fewer families of any race.

San Francisco's tinny recovery has created a type of American novelty — the inner-city bedroom community.

More than 1,000 Google employees, for example, shuttle from homes here to the company's Mountain View campus. And a growing legion of wealthy middle-aged pied-é-terre buyers makes a ghostly effect where new apartments are empty — while their owners are in Montana or wherever the real home is — but prices remain high.

The city's potentially best, brightest, youngest, and most culturally and racially diverse — but, alas, not richest — are setting stakes instead in Oakland and Sacramento. To lure these people back would require an apartment-building boom the likes of which the city hasn't seen since early this century in order to solve a price-goosing apartment shortage of between 30,000 and 70,000 units. The city's dynamism-loathing majority population has indicated on countless occasions that it would never countenance such a project.

So instead the city's greatest vitality is in its dramatically rebounded tourism industry, thus creating the illusion of civic life: bustling sidewalks, parks, museums, beaches. A local approaches in hopes of mingling in this dynamic-seeming crowd, and finds people who know neither each other nor anyone who lives here. And they all have plans to leave in a day.

Ironically, to the extent local social struggle happens at all here, it's often aimed at making San Francisco even more staid and rich. One such effort happened to take place right next to the gay-homeland Castro neighborhood.

I spent a lunch hour last month with Cynthia Servetnick, a Public Utilities Commission employee who has used her off time during the past year or so struggling to stop UC Berkeley from leasing its abandoned extension campus in S.F. at 55 Laguna St. to a housing developer.

Servetnick led me around the site, consisting of several large parking lots surrounded by a mix of Spanish-colonial-style and 1970s California-government-bureaucracy-style buildings. She bemoaned the idea that the site would be occupied by "market rate" apartments, something she stated San Francisco doesn't need more of. She praised the success of activists in Berkeley, another Venice-like city whose residents have shunned growth.

"San Francisco could learn a lot from them," Servetnick said as we strolled through the abandoned buildings.

Servetnick had teamed with the president of the small, private New College of California to try to halt a proposal to build 440 apartments, 66 of which were to be builder-subsidized for lower-income people; a half-acre park; and 80 apartments for elderly gay and transgender people. Servetnick's plan was to have the property zoned as a historic landmark, making the UC development plan economically impossible, thus driving down the lease rate to a point where New College would be able to afford to occupy the building.

Despite countless months of lobbying by New College President Martin Hamilton and Servetnick, the plan fell apart this month. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin — usually sympathetic to those who would halt change — likened Servetnick's scheme to a City Hall version of tortuous interference, where a person seeks to gain by damaging someone else's business dealings. So Peskin brokered a deal last week allowing the development project to go forward largely as planned. New College, which came under new leadership Aug. 3 for unrelated reasons, is no longer interested in Servetnick's plan, interim New College President Luis Molina told me earlier this month.

This is hardly a return to historic progress in the Monaco of California. But it's a start.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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